Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Monday, 17 March 2014
"Stoned in Prague":
“Stoned in Prague” by Meira Eliot
A couple of excerpts:
What is a life? When does it start, when does it end? Does it end? And is it lived in the events, or in the meaning that we find and make after the events? The life that I now call mine started in a particular time and particular place, incongruously as if in a dream, but one that soon turned into a nightmare. In 1619 Prince Frederick the Protestant Elector Palatine ascended to the throne of Bohemia. He traveled there from Heidelberg with his beloved wife Princess Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I of England. Within less than a year, Frederick and Elizabeth, the Winter King and Queen, were defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain. This marked the reinstatement of the Catholic Habsburgs as rulers of the Czech lands, and of the lineage of the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick and Elizabeth, stripped of their rank and property, fled to a life of hardship and deprivation in the Netherlands. Of their thirteen children, their eldest son was tragically drowned in a boating accident. A daughter, also called Elizabeth, became an abbess and was known as La Grecque on account of her erudition in ancient languages. She corresponded over many years with the French philosopher Descartes. Sophia, another of Frederick and Elizabeth’s daughters, grew up to be the mother of King George I of England. Thus Frederick and Elizabeth of Bohemia became a crucial link between the houses of Stuart and Hanover.
Among the entourage on their arrival in Prague there was an alchemist and scholar by the name of Adam Wood, who soon afterwards rented lodgings in the house of a barber in the Old Town. The barber, whose father had been a barber and his father before him, was a married man with two young daughters of marriageable age. He had been disenchanted with his life for some time. He could still remember the smile that had lit up his father’s face when a regular customer had come in and sat down in their shop. His father had prepared the soap with an intentness of expression that had imprinted itself on the barber’s memory, not least because he came to envy the contentment it betrayed. The young barber concealed his envy, both to his father and to himself, behind a facade of indifference and contempt. As he unwillingly followed in his father’s footsteps, he acquired the habit of mentally absenting himself from the exercise of his profession, a process which alas only made him feel even more trapped.
Like many before and after him, the disenchanted barber imagined he saw the enchantment he sought in the glamour of another man’s life. He took to scrutinizing the movements of his new lodger, Adam Wood. A fascination developed. Through careful observation and secret pursuit of his lodger on his daily journey from the Old Town to the alchemy workshop in the Prague Castle precincts, the barber discovered that Adam Wood was working with gemstones. He was enthralled. What could be more exciting and thrilling, he thought, than to be a traveling scholar and alchemist? To be free to pursue the deepest mysteries of life without encumbrances such as razors, soap, wives and marriageable daughters? He started, stealthily at first, following a few steps behind, to pursue Wood as he went about his business. And so the barber got into the habit of following Wood on his morning walk through the Old Town, across the Old Town Bridge and up the steep hill to the Castle and Golden Lane where the alchemists gathered and worked. Surreptitiously he would peep in at the window of the workshop where Adam Wood conducted his experiments, or find some pretext to pass the doorway whenever anyone entered or left. After some weeks of this, he grew bolder, in time acquiring a disguise with a hood to cover his face. When deliveries of work materials were made, he occasionally managed to sneak into the workshop in Golden Lane a couple of times and look around at the mortars, pestles, copper cauldrons and other paraphernalia of this mysterious profession. One day, before he had even realized it, he found himself darting back out of the workshop with a green gemstone like a dark emerald clutched in his moist palm. He stopped short, for only a few weeks previously he would have believed himself incapable of such a blatant act of theft. Had he been of a mind to do so, he would have heeded this act of self-forgetting as a warning that he was treading on perilous, illicit ground. Instead, the theft of the stone became the turning point in a rapid and irrevocable downward spiral.
Eva quite enjoyed Sunday mornings on duty in Martyrs’ Complex House at Ransom’s. There was a luxurious feeling about the absence of haste and tension that inevitably went with the Monday to Friday schedule. She would get up around nine and make herself a large mug of strong tea, allowing it to brew for at least five minutes without hurrying it. The few girls staying in over Saturday night were rarely up at this time, so she loved the peace and quiet, without the clumping footfalls up and down the staircase near her door, the accompanying teenage shrieks and the ceaseless thud of countless competing stereos. Still in her nightdress, she would go into the living room of the small flat where Carol let her stay when she was on weekend duty. Opening the lined brocade curtains that looked out on to the playing fields, she took in the early March morning. Although the trees were still bare there was a glow of spring in the morning light, and there were snowdrops and yellow and violet crocuses in the flower beds below her window. It was beautiful, and yet she felt a lack, an incongruence, in the view. There should be more roll in the hills, more forest, more fir trees. She missed Bohemia.
Just as Eva put the steaming mug to her lips in anticipation of the first properly brewed cup of tea in what promised to be a leisurely day, out of the corner of her eye she became aware of something moving. A youth came into view. He might have been around sixteen years old, with dark, greasy-looking, disheveled hair. Starting at the top right hand corner of the lacrosse pitch near the entrance to the driveway, he embarked on a determined but shambling path, stumbling out a diagonal foray across the field, rather like an upright two-legged crab with his body facing sideways towards Eva. His arms flapped at his sides as he attempted to keep his balance. Eva then became aware that she was not the only person observing this Sunday morning diversion. A second youth appeared in the entrance to the school driveway, in the same corner where the first had launched his tack across the pitch. Watching him closely, the second youth seemed to be carrying a jacket over one arm. A series of twitches in his body seemed to suggest, even from this distance, some indecision about whether or not to follow his disheveled companion, who was making remarkably good progress for someone who would clearly have struggled to stand still. Drunk or stoned as he was, he had clearly beaten this path before and was not going to let his temporary incapacity keep him from his goal, which seemed to be the far entrance of Martyrs Complex.
Eva gave out a resigned sigh as she deposited her mug of tea on the nearest surface. She would now have to get dressed quickly and go and investigate. Three minutes later she was making her way along the downstairs corridor. There was no sign of the youth. Having checked that the doors into the building were still secure, she stepped out on to the driveway and walked towards the other young man who had been observing from a distance. There was no sign of the human crab. It took her a good couple of minutes to reach the companion. “Good morning,” said Eva, “Can I help you?” The blonde boy looked embarrassed. “We’re from Sutton House at Newbourne College,” he explained. “We had an exeat last night to my friend’s house (nodding in the direction of the now invisible friend) and I’m afraid he had a bit too much of one thing and another (with a meaningful glance at Eva). When he said he was coming up to see his girlfriend, the others sent me after him to keep an eye on him.”
“I see,” said Eva, trying to keep a straight face out of respect for the young man’s sense of responsibility. She turned again to face the facade of Martyrs. At first there seemed to be no sign of the disheveled dark-haired youth, but squinting slightly Eva was able to discern a heap of something among the crocuses that had not been there a few minutes earlier. “Ah!” she said. “Well, I don’t think there is anything more you can do for him at the moment, so I suggest you go back to where you are staying (What did you say the address was?), and leave me to deal with this.” The blonde friend looked a little reluctant to go, but relieved to have the responsibility taken from him. He thanked her and left.
Excerpt 3, from Book 2
The Cabinet Minister at the party, who was attempting to prepare a salad wearing a full leather mask over his head, but nothing else (apart from the studded dog collar and chain that Beth was holding him by) was having a little difficulty negotiating his erection round the kitchen. At one point he nearly trapped it in the fridge door as he was retrieving some fresh lemons. Beth, who was relishing the moment, but not forgetting to file it away for future scenes of private humiliation, tugged a little harder on the chain, putting on her best stern voice:
“If anyone ever needed conclusive proof of what a stupid little prick you are, then this is it!” She laughed haughtily for dramatic effect.
“Yes, mistress,” purred the chastened minister in an ecstasy of aroused contrition.
“Well at least there is one member that can always be relied on to stand up for you in parliament!” Beth scathed with a sharp tug on the chain.
“Yes mistress, thank you mistress,” croaked the minister, obediently squeezing a lemon.
Meanwhile Beth’s friends Monica and Carol, ever supportive, ever practical, were circulating round the dainty nooks and crannies of the charming Cotswold cottage carrying trays of dip and nibbles. Their glasses of Champagne, regularly topped up by Beth in between tugs on the chain, were strategically placed in an alcove in the centre of the ground floor, thus enabling them to take sips each time they passed. From time to time, deciding wordlessly between them that they were getting a little dizzy from this combination of bubbles and rotation, they would stop and change direction from clockwise to anti-clockwise, or vice versa. It seemed pointless to attempt to converse (there was so much to look at) so another mutual wordless agreement deferred all discussion until the event was over, whenever that might be. Any one of the many scenes that fed their eyes as they ploughed through the array of odd couples and groups, stepping over locked limbs and instruments of blissful punishment would supply, they knew, sufficient material for a gossipfest to last a whole day, once they were back in their old routine. They felt enormously touched that Beth had trusted them with this occasion.
The night wore on. Beth’s friend Eva, almost unrecognizable in a saucy nurse’s outfit and severe black wig that Beth had helpfully lent her, had independently launched her brand new persona by taking a dominant, striding tour of the upstairs, opening doors and inspecting rooms systematically, as if on a ward sister’s rounds. This bold procedure rapidly evolved into a learning curve with the trajectory of a Harrier jet. In one bedroom, for example, she couldn’t help noticing the flustered bliss on the face of the Bishop who had attended evening classes with her for their Master’s in Death Studies many months previously. The Bishop was in no position to recognize her face at the time, as he was having his rear end explored by an enthusiastic fist, attached to an unknown but stunningly good-looking young man. Concluding that all was well in that bedroom at least, Eva straightened her wig and closed the door.
Turning, she saw a terminally respectable-looking man in a pin-stripe suit slumped in a chintz armchair near the phone table at the top of the stairs. He was slightly balding, in his early fifties, and looked like the sort of man who could be trusted with huge sums of money for decades at a time. Hearing herself draw a breath of resolve, she spoke to him in her most commanding nurse’s voice:
“And what, may I ask, are YOU doing here?”
His glance, suddenly lit up, shot up towards her face, scanning it with a hope that hardly dared to hope.
“I, er, well…, that is,” he stammered, his glance straying down to her feet. It was a hesitation that the people he employed in his department in the city would scarcely have find credible had they heard it.
It was the decision of a moment, welling up within her from some place she did not even know was there. She moved towards him and stood no more than two inches from his knees, staring down at him with a commanding frown.
“Follow me!” She bellowed. She remembered only a few seconds earlier having glanced into a single bedroom, perhaps a child’s. There had been no-one in it, she recalled.
“Well get up then! I haven’t got all day!” she urged with feigned impatience. She was both surprised and unsurprised that he did exactly as he was commanded. She turned and walked the few steps to the small room, flung open the door and frowned at him, indicating with a flick of her head that he should go in. He went in. She followed and closed the door behind her. It had an old-fashioned lock with a key on the inside. She turned it and then looked into the man’s face. She had entered a new world, and yet it felt so familiar and natural to her. She instinctively knew what she had to do.